Amidst increasing life expectancy and low fertility rate, Singapore and Malaysia are facing an ageing population. Fewer than five working adults support one elderly person in Singapore and Malaysia estimates an ageing population by 2030. Governmental effort has been implemented to deal with this inevitable process, but research shows that individuals can play a part too.

An ageing population brings a whole host of social and economic problems, including a rise in “sandwiched” families -where two or fewer working adults are supporting both younger and elderly dependants. There is also more demand for healthcare and social services.

“Who will pay the taxes, to spend on whom? How do we keep (the economy) prosperous, vibrant and forward looking? Who will man the Singapore Armed Forces and defend us? We can’t be the Dad’s Army,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2015.

The Singapore government responded by helping seniors “age well and live fulfilling lives” through home ownership and good healthcare. It has implemented and reviewed policies like the ElderShield, to help with rising healthcare costs for the elderly.

Malaysia too, is preparing to face the challenges of an ageing nation through the implementation of elderly-friendly measures. According to Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim, “One of these included revising the retirement age from 55 to 66 years old."

A consultative council for senior citizens was also set up to implement the senior citizen policy and action plan, which was approved by the government in 2011.

Individuals can do their part to age gracefully, too

Apart from governmental efforts to manage the social and economic aspects of ageing, individuals can be more accountable for their process of ageing. A new European study showed that exercise during middle age is linked with better cognition later in life.

The collaborated research from the University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä and University of Turku tracked the physical activity and cognitive function of twins from the Finnish Twin Cohort in the long-term.

Questionnaires assessed the levels of physical activity, including the volume and intensity of activity in 1975 and again in 1981, when the mean age of participants was 45. The cognitive functions of the same participants were then assessed between 1999 and 2015 through telephone interviews - when the mean age of participants was 74.2.

Taking into account health factors (such as high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, binge drinking), and social factors (such as education level), it was found that participation in activities more strenuous than walking, was associated with a lower risk of cognitive impairment later in life when compared to non-participation.

However, it is unclear how much exercise is needed, as increasing physical activity beyond a moderate amount did not increase memory-protecting benefits. Cognitive decline and dementia are afflictions of an ageing population so the research holds implications for dementia prevention and the protective effects of physical exercise.

“Superagers”: Some people age better than others

Other research has been done to understand the ageing problem - from the discovery of possible genetic causes for the variability in ageing exhibited within populations to the inverse correlation of marriage and mortality rates.

A research team from the Northwestern University has found that for some people, their brains shrink less than the average, thus experiencing less cognitive decline - known as ‘superagers’ – who are above 80 years old but perform like 55-year-olds in memory tests.

The team found that the brains of 'superagers' show no signs of being special, until later in life, and there are no lifestyle clues to set apart 'superagers' from the rest. This makes it difficult to identify and study young people who go on to become 'superagers'.

The anterior cingulate cortex (involved in attention) in 'superagers' is also thicker than in others of the same age.

Normally, from the age of 40, human brains begin to shrink at a rate of 5% per decade, and this is accelerated after the age of 70. This process affects the entire brain - although some regions seem especially vulnerable.

While further research is needed, the finding suggests that superagers’ brains do not actually show any signs of being special until later in life. MIMS

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